Researchers from UCL and ICREA-University of Barcelona published an immersive study in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open, about a virtual reality therapy including “embodiment” that helped people with depression to be less self-critical and more compassionate towards themselves, reducing depressive symptoms. The study was funded by the Medical Research Council.
Of 15 depression patients aged 23-61 9 participants reported reduced depressive symptoms; and four experienced a clinically significant drop in depression severity, following one month after completion of the virtual reality therapy.
To collect the virtual reality data, patients wore a headset that allowed them to “see” their environment from the perspective of a lifelike virtual body, or “avatar.” Participants developed the illusion that the avatars were their own bodies by viewing the avatar in a mirror. The avatar moved when the participant moved, in the same ways and in sync with their own movements – this is the concept of “embodiment.”
Embodiment has been used primarily in video game technology. What researchers have learned from virtual reality is that the brain does not discriminate against virtual reality. If you take part in a virtual reality simulation in which you are a marathon runner, your heart rate will increase with the level of virtual experience. The mind readily gets into “character” and produces the physiological responses that your body would experience if you were actually performing the tasks interfaced through virtual reality.
Yale social psychologists are increasingly interested in embodiment theory, which “refers to the assumption that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are grounded in sensory experiences and bodily states.” It is the idea that “the mind is not only connected to the body but that the body influences the mind, is one of the more counter-intuitive ideas in cognitive science.”
Embodiment is in contrast to the concept of dualism, a theory of mind prompted by Rene Descartes in the 17th century, which greatly influenced Western thought schools. Descartes said, “there is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible… the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body.”
Embodiment rather speaks to the interconnection of mind and body, and most importantly, that body can change the mind and now through cognitive neuroscience, the mind can change the body.
Based on the brain’s cooperative mode, researchers have begun integrating virtual reality into therapeutic technology to make the mind “believe” that healing is taking place, which it literally tells the body’s cells to manifest as it thinks that the virtual treatment has been administered.
Patients in the UCL and ICREA-University embodiment study were shown an adult avatar. Then, they received training in how to express compassion towards a distressed, virtual child. The virtual child’s demeanor and temperament gradually improved as the virtual adult (piloted by the study participant) talked with the child positively and compassionately.
After a few minutes, the patients were allowed to view the therapy setting from the vantage of the virtual child. Participants witnessed the adult avatar who represented him or herself, showing compassion to the virtual child. This complicated use of technology was delivered in 8-minute intervals, on three separate weekdays. One month later, the researchers re-connected with the patients for a follow-up.
Lead Research Professor Chris Brewin (UCL Clinical, Educational & Health Psychology) said, “People who struggle with anxiety and depression can be excessively self-critical when things go wrong in their lives. In this study, by comforting the child and then hearing their own words [played] back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion. The aim was to teach patients to be more compassionate towards themselves and less self-critical, and we saw promising results. A month after the study, several patients described how their experience had changed their response to real-life situations in which they would previously have been self-critical.”
This study needs to be duplicated with a larger sample population and a control group. Still, it is a promising conceptual proof that virtual reality can help depression patients positively change their perspective in order to learn healing properties that may reduce their negative symptoms.
Research Co-author and Professor, Mel Slater (ICREA-University of Barcelona and UCL Computer Science) said, “We now hope to develop the technique further to conduct a larger controlled trial, so that we can confidently determine any clinical benefit,” says “If a substantial benefit is seen, then this therapy could have huge potential. The recent marketing of low-cost home virtual reality systems means that methods such as this could potentially be part of every home and be used on a widespread basis.”